The photographer Richard Kern has been living in the same fifth-floor walk up in New York’s East Village neighborhood since 1988. In those days, this block was home to drug dealers and hobos, with punk dance clubs like CBGB, The Mudd Club and Area right around the corner. The area has cleaned up considerably and so has the space – once his photography studio/bedroom, he now shares this spare apartment with his wife, the photographer Martynka Wawrzyniak, and occasionally his 12-year-old son (whose mom is Me & Ro jewelry designer Robin Renzi). Two apartments down, in a former squat turned art space, he maintains another storage space for his paintings, taxes and a headless mannequin; in the space’s courtyard, flash drives of his photos are buried underground in a 55-gallon drum that serves as a time capsule, to be dug up in 50 years time.
Kern is interested in archiving his own stuff, but none too sentimental about memorabilia – all his stuff from his days in the NYC art-punk scene of the late ’70s and ’80s is neatly filed away. This fits his personality: the son of a newspaper man, he takes a disciplined, almost tradesman-like approach to his work of shooting naked young girls and he’s disarmingly matter-of-fact, whether he’s talking about where he likes to eat (Café Mogador) or some girl’s hairy bush.
Despite Kern’s childhood crushes on womanly bombshells (Jane Fonda in Barbarella and Ginger from Gilligan’s Island), his work of the last many years is obsessed with finding the perfect (albeit secretly dirty) girl next door. Along the way, he’s worked for GQ, Playboy, numerous porn mags, Purple Fashion and Vice, with whom he’s collaborated for five years on his Shot By Kern video/photo series. Currently, he’s working on a few books for Taschen and making music videos again, including one for the punk band Off! (His videos for Sonic Youth, The Breeders and Unsane are essential viewing, as are his ’80s flicks including Fingered and You Killed Me First.)
Richard maintains a teenager’s taste for all things subversive and transgressive; these are the subjects that make his face light up and bring out his dry sense of humor. In his late ’50s, he has an easy smile and the mannerisms, speech and boyish good looks of his younger years. Maybe the blood of virgins does keep you young after all…
Did you always dream of moving to New York?
I always wanted to come here. It was the only option for me to get out of the stinking small town that I was from. This was where everything was happening.
Have you ever lived anywhere other than New York or North Carolina, where you grew up?
I lived in Philadelphia for a few months which, I mean… Philadelphia is nice but it’s super boring. I stayed there for a few months and then a friend said this artist in New York they knew needed a new assistant and then a friend said she was moving out of her apartment so that was that.
I lived in San Francisco about six months in ’87 or ’88. I went there thinking I would get off drugs but that didn’t work. I was more running away when I left there. I don’t know what I was running from. The crystal meth scene there is so hallucinatory and I had to get out of there. It was crazy.
How is your work informed by living in New York?
I think everything contributes to everything. Being here is good for holding on to some negativity and jealousy and stuff like that. You can get that going pretty easy. Like New York Magazine this week [has a headline] that says “The New Rule Book To Be An Artist” or something like that and I’m looking through it going, “God! Fuck all these people.” For my stuff, it’s good to be able to still keep that going a little bit.
So that “fuck you” feeling is a good motivator?
Yeah, but I’d probably have that anywhere. I went to the country last week and I felt that way there. It was more just like… I wanted to get out of there. It reminded of me being a little kid. I’m from a town of 20,000 people. It’s pretty rural. The same town now is totally different because even though there’s probably less people, there’s the internet. I could not wait to get out of there. I was bored the whole time I was small. In summer you’d sit on the curb, waiting for a book you ordered to arrive so you’d have something exciting to do.
Who did you want to be when you were 15?
Jesus, probably. I was really religious up until I was 15. Around 15, I quit going to church. That was probably when my parents split up. Oh no, it was when the counterculture started up. I’m wondering how long it’s going to take my kid (he’s 12 now) before he starts doing all the bad stuff. I didn’t have any clue what I was doing, even up until about 25. Shit, I think it took until I was 28 until I finally got an inkling of what I wanted to do.
What was your first exposure to something that was the counterculture?
Back then you would have to have a subscription to Rolling Stone or Look or Life magazine to have access to anything like that. It wasn’t on TV. There was nowhere to buy the stuff. I guess it was The Beatles, Elvis, that kind of shit. The first time I experienced it in person was a Led Zeppelin show – that was my first concert in ninth grade. That was a big game-changer for me between what I thought it was like and what it was actually like.
You’ve lived in NY for so long there must be a lot of people that you started off with that disappeared or aren’t doing anything anymore.
Yeah, totally. Especially the art people; and the people I went to school with even. There’s one guy I know that’s still doing stuff; he’s more like some institutional guy – he does some art place out in the middle of nowhere. But he’s continued to do it. The whole trick is never to stop. I thought I would stop a couple times but I just shifted it. You have to just keep going.
The other thing is: if you want to do anything you’ve got to do it all the time. When I first got here I was going out a lot and shit like that. But you have to just work and work and work. I was thinking about this yesterday. The neighbors have parties downstairs and they’re all kids; it’s like 30 people and they all look like artist types. I was thinking maybe, like, one of those people will still be doing what their dreams were in 25 years and the rest will all being doing who knows what.
What are some projects that you were going to do but they never worked out or were abandoned?
I made this movie You Killed Me First and I was going to make another similar one, with GG Allin and Kembra Pfahler as the parents. I had these two kids that looked exactly alike who would do anything sexually. They were, like, 18 and GG was 40 so it was conceivable they could be parents and kids. I was going to make, like, a really good incest movie. But then GG OD’ed. In fact, the day he OD’ed, he was in town and I went to talk to him; we talked about the film, trying to figure out when it could happen.
There are a lot of things. Oh yeah! I would like to get rich. Right now, I’m trying to think of something that is as interesting to me as the Medicated project, something that works on so many different levels. Something that’s pervy and it’s kind of subversive and it’s not “good” – something you can look at and think about. But not like somebody putting a candle in their ass and you’re like, “Oh wow, that’s so depraved.” More like, you’re looking at these normal people and then it has a little more to it.
Does someone putting a candle in their ass seem too contrived in this day and age?
Well, I did that already. I did that in ’90s and I didn’t think anything about it but people thought it was so weird and so transgressive. It just seems stupid when I think about it now but I sold a lot of those photos and I don’t know why.
Has the internet changed what people are willing to do when they show up for a shoot?
Yeah, but I also send them a list of what we’ll probably shoot. A lot of times people have completely the wrong idea – they think it’s going to be some wild sex shoot and that’s not happening. Because of the internet, people are definitely freer but at the same time they’re more guarded. In fact, with Shot By Kern we always tell everybody to please pick a fake name and they’re like, “Oh no, I don’t need that because I don’t really care about this.” But in a year they might care. You never know what might happen. I’d say it goes both ways. It’s hard not to have a presence on the internet. That’s always shocking if you’re trying to find out something about someone and there’s nothing. That’s very hard.
I almost feel like people that are not on the internet and don’t have any tattoos that are under 40 are basically like unicorns.
It definitely switches back and forth. I notice there’s a nice resurgence in armpit hair and natural bush. I was looking at this fashion magazine – this French one called Self Service – the other day and all the models had the bushiest eyebrows like Frida Kahlo. It was like no plucking, nothing. It just goes round and round. The going round and round is why people will come back to my films again. It’s also because I restored them all last year. I made new high-definition transfers. The stuff’s just sitting in the closet rotting and people only want to show video; I always wanted to be able to do something with them so they would be preserved. The Andy Warhol Foundation and Anthology gave me a grant to do it, and when the KW Institute in Berlin showed all my stuff in HD in March, it looked really fantastic.
For sure some people are going to be mad that your films are in HD.
I hope so. I feel like whoever has got the stuff at the end of the day wins in the history contest. My friend was telling me she saw some films by Rudy Burckhart from the ’30s the other day at somebody’s loft. He has been making films since the 1930s and she said they were surprising; like some of the same stuff we were doing in NYC in the ’80s. Like a couple goes out and while they’re out their house gets robbed and the robbers can only find $4, so they don’t know what to do. Real simple stories.
Do you purposely not acquire things on your travels? It’s very barren in here.
Yeah, it’s pretty blank in here. It used to be a lot more blank in here when I shot all the time. I don’t like to have a lot of stuff. I bought a Nook so I can quit buying books too. It’s hard not to get stuff but I have to collect all this other crap, this photo stuff. I like to get paintings – I trade with everybody.
Do you not have much stuff from the late ’70s and early ’80s?
I got some junk but it’s flat stuff, a bunch of fanzines and stuff. There’s one closet full of that stuff. I haven’t known whether to keep it or not, but I’ll keep it because these days you can sell your archive to Cornell or someone.
I see you have a million plan Bs going on.
You have to have Plan Bs. I’m at the age where you do a lot of thinking about what you’re going to do when you’re old.
What percentage of the girls you shoot end up being used?
Oh everybody gets used. Well, I’m doing a book right now so I’d say maybe 75% are used or 80%, but that’s like one photo out of 200 to 500 of each person.
Tell me about the paintings in here.
This is Duncan Hannah, he’s a friend of mine and he’s older than me. That one’s really funny and I like it. This is Aurel Schmidt. This is a Japanese girl whose name I can’t pronounce. This one’s Bjarne Melgaard. That is Walter Robinson. And that’s my son’s, the little mermaid or whatever it is. This chair is by my friend Chris Rucker, who makes furniture. This is Duncan again. This is Dana Schutz. Here’s a Marilyn Minter.
Do you have a favorite period of your work.
No. Wait, yeah I do. It’s whatever I’m doing next year.
You shot porn for a while. Did you do that on purpose or did you just figure out you could sell your stuff to porn?
It was financial. It was right when young girl porn was starting, like unadorned, non-enhanced natural looking girls. That was, I would say, ’93 or ’94. One of my friends was the editor of Hustler back then and they started one of the first of those young girl magazines. At the time I was shooting a rock video; I was working for a whole month and all I was getting was $800 and this guy calls up and says, “I want to take 10 photos of yours. It’s $2000.” So then I just switched and for about four or five years I would go to L.A. or even stay in New York for one week and shoot and I would make enough to live on and support all the other things I was doing in the other three weeks.
Did you end up shooting porn girls?
I shot whoever I could get that would be believable as the girl-next-door. I didn’t find it unpleasant. A lot of the people I met that were shooting photos were really interesting and had a pretty good outlook and were making a lot of money. You would meet some girls that were pretty damaged already, like they were 18 and already really fucked up. But you can meet people like that anywhere. But then when people started saying “You’re a pornographer”… I mean, maybe I am and maybe I’m not, but first they were calling me a fetish photographer, then they were calling me a pornographer, then they were calling me a fashion photographer. Then I just quit all that stuff and just started shoot what I do. I didn’t want to be that porno guy. You can only go so far with that. And as soon as the internet got rolling, all those magazines died. That business was extremely lucrative; I couldn’t foresee the end it just happened to coincide.
What have you found inspiring recently?
I’d say I was impressed when I saw Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. The opening credits were inspiring. I read a lot of crap fiction, like spy fiction and terrorist fiction and shit. Like that movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy – I’m from that period so I loved it. The best thing about going to Berlin this last time was seeing it now because I’ve read countless books about espionage in Berlin in the ’60s. I went there a lot in the ’70s when it was so Communist and it’s just so different now. It’s turned into a very drab… well, it’s not punk rock anymore like when it was empty and squatted and bombed out. Actually, this building we’re in was bombed out. This was the first squat in the city. The city sold it back to the people who had renovated it so they got this building for, like, a dollar.
How you feel about the East Village having lived here for so long?
I love it. It’s changed tremendously, but I’m happy because that means less crime for me. You would never ever be on this block back then, unless you were buying drugs. And they had really good drugs on this block. In the building across the street, there were just tons of drug dealers in there. The day the police decided to clean it out, I got the best photos! They arrested so many people, there was a line half a block long. They set up a little processing station out on the street, a little police stand to, like, take people in. They just pulled ’em out of that building and cops were coming out holding guns by little strings and stuff. Also across the street there used to be this shantytown that all these people were living in. There’s a community garden there now.
What do you personally find offensive?
Lots of things. The smell of deodorant. Name droppers. The person at the party with the loud opinion on everything. Dirty toenails. Dirty beds. Litter boxes. People that collect action figures. Myself. Etcetera etcetera…
Thank you for this refreshingly raw interview!
Photographer: Gracia Villamil
Interview: Vivian Host